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Socratic Humility

Glenn Rawson on humility versus arrogance in the Socratic method of philosophy.

“Gentlemen of Athens, I am far from making a defence now on my own behalf, as you might think, but on yours: lest you do wrong to god’s gift to you by condemning me. For if you kill me you will not easily find another like me.
“What’s likely, gentlemen, is that in reality it’s the god who is wise, and that in this oracle he is saying that human wisdom is worth little or nothing ... as if he were saying ‘he among you humans is wisest who, like Socrates, knows that he’s really worth nothing when it comes to wisdom’.”
Socrates, in Plato’s Apology of Socrates 30e and 23ab

Socrates, a founding figure in both the aspirations and the skepticism of Western philosophy, was convicted and executed on charges of corrupting the youth by undermining Athenian traditions. The vote of the very large jury was fairly close: Plato reports that a switch of just 30 out of 500 votes would have produced an acquittal. Some believe that Socrates could have spared his life if he had only been less arrogant at his trial. After all, Plato shows Socrates calling himself god’s gift to Athens, calling Athens a lazy horse who needs rousing by a philosophical gadfly, and suggesting that his ‘penalty’ for his services should be free meals for life in city hall. (Apologia in Greek means a defense speech, not “I’m sorry”!) Indeed Socrates must have sounded arrogant; another admirer, Xenophon, tries to explain parts of Socrates’ defense by claiming that Socrates wanted to die. In Plato’s more famous and more complete version (which is probably also more accurate in spirit), Socrates defends his life in earnest and acknowledges that he must sound arrogant – but insists that he is not. He turns the tables on his accusers by explaining that it is their arrogance, and their misunderstanding of his own humble service to philosophy, which is responsible for his being on trial.

Could Socrates be right that his life of refuting others is genuinely humble, and that his humble philosophical questioning must appear arrogant to those who really are arrogant? Or is he just cleverly trying to make a bad case seem strong with tricky arguments? That’s what his detractors alleged for much of his life, and some say the same about philosophers today. I’ll try to explain how Socrates’ way of questioning could be both genuinely humble and naturally open to the mistaken accusation of arrogance. (I use Plato’s portrait in his Socratic dialogues, which is the best we’ve got). Then I’ll consider a recent study of arrogance, and compare Socrates’ style of questioning with some things that go by the name of ‘Socratic Method’ today.

Socratic ‘human wisdom’ and the anti-hubristic mission of the philosophical ‘gadfly’

Untying this loose paradox requires understanding Socrates’ mission of ‘human wisdom.’ He claims that the longstanding slander in the streets – that he’s an atheistic quack-scientist and sophist with no concern for truth or tradition – is more dangerous than his formal accusers, and the main reason jurors might consider him guilty. Where did his reputation for being such a wiseguy come from? From a misunderstanding, he says, of the one kind of wisdom that he is willing to claim. It’s not scientific wisdom or rhetorical expertise, and it’s not the superhuman wisdom that would make us real teachers of genuine virtue: Socrates always denied that he could teach these things. The only wisdom he’s willing to claim is what he calls ‘human wisdom,’ which is revealed to him cryptically through an oracle from Apollo.

What is this human wisdom? Apparently, when an enthusiastic admirer asked the oracle whether anyone was wiser than Socrates, the oracle said no. Socrates was puzzled, as he was well aware that he had no special knowledge, yet he couldn’t believe that the god could lie or be mistaken. So he set out to discover what this riddling oracle could mean. He visited people with a reputation for moral wisdom, but he found that they didn’t really know what they thought they knew. He interviewed politicians, playwrights, and others with the same results: people always harbor inconsistencies in their beliefs about the good life, and are unable to explain their beliefs in the light of Socrates’ searching questions. The more expertise people claimed about the most important things in life – justice, virtue and the best way to live – the less they could justify their claims. Even the knowledge some people did possess, like the art or science of their trades, was overshadowed by their mistaken belief that they were also qualified to tell people how they should live.

Eventually Socrates recognized his modest superiority: “it seems that neither of us knows anything great, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know. So it seems I am wiser than he in this one small thing, that I do not think I know what I do not know.” This is the famous paradox that Socrates’ special wisdom consists in recognizing his ignorance. Whereas others arrogantly think they know important things that they don’t really know, he humbly acknowledges that he doesn’t know: “it’s the god who is wise, and in this oracle he is saying ... ‘he among you humans is wisest who, like Socrates, knows that he’s really worth nothing when it comes to wisdom’.” This interpretation may at first seem far from the original “no one is wiser than Socrates,” but the oracle had a reputation for hidden meanings, and at any rate Socrates could find no other way to make good sense of it. At least he avoids the arrogance of thinking that he knows more than everyone else.

Socrates then spends the rest of his life promoting this humble self-knowledge that Apollo so values. Maybe he also hopes to find somewhere the superhuman wisdom that would teach us the true nature of the good life. But more to the point he is continuing his modest service to Apollo, combating the widespread arrogance of assuming a wisdom that one doesn’t really have. He tries to make people aware of their arrogance both when they explicitly claim to possess great wisdom, and when their actions imply a wisdom that they don’t possess. Thus he debates professional teachers of virtue and practical politics (‘sophists’ like Hippias, Protagoras, Gorgias), and he cross-examines some prosecutors, mercenaries, and aspiring statesmen (like Euthyphro, Meno, and Alcibiades). Refuting pretenders to wisdom, Socrates tries to help them become more humble, and thereby remove the one modest way in which he is superior.

Socrates’ mission is a philosophical version of a typical Greek attack on hubris. In Greek, hubris can refer to violence or other outrageous behavior, or to looking down on others with an inappropriate sense of superiority. Sometimes it refers more grandly to attempts to exceed the limits of human nature. Greek myths and legends often tell of men who try to cheat fate or stand with the gods, and who must fail or be punished. Icarus falls to his death for having tried to fly too high; Sisyphus is punished with eternal futility for cheating death; and Oedipus seals his own miserable fate by trying to outwit the oracle: all of these stories express an abiding anxiety about thinking that we’re better than we are, about not knowing our proper place. Dramatists, historians and philosophers warn commoners, kings and communities against the arrogance of thinking that they’re better than they are. And Apollo was especially associated with this message. The walls of his temple at Delphi bore inscriptions like ‘know thyself,’ ‘nothing in excess,’ and ‘hate hubris.’ In this long tradition, Socrates directs his antihubristic mission especially against those who claim special moral wisdom.

Socrates’ mission is specifically philosophical, rather than just a prudent reminder, because his examinations of himself and others bring a new, more thorough conception of what really counts as knowledge. He draws some inspiration from successful explanations in the arts and sciences of his day, applies the criterion of consistency with unprecedented rigor, and introduces standards for proper definitions. Socrates’ inability to satisfy his own high standards in the important but slippery field of morality led him to conclude that he doesn’t have the ‘superhuman wisdom’ that would qualify him as a teacher of virtue. Though Socrates is almost always more logically adept than those he questions, his claim that he himself doesn’t know the full answers is not merely ironic. (These elements of Socratic philosophy have been studied with much excitement in recent decades; see the note on further reading below.)

According to Socrates’ story, then, he must behave like the philosophical gadfly in order to pursue Apollo’s mission, rousing the lazy horse that is Athens from her intellectual laziness and arrogance by exhibiting his own ignorance and reminding others of theirs. But those who are unwilling or unable to recognize their arrogance are likely to interpret Socrates as a know-it-all or a wiseguy who gets pleasure from defeating others in debate. Socrates tells of how young people enjoy imitating him, always trying to refute others – but without Socrates’ earnest modesty. Socrates’ detractors hated seeing traditions questioned and pillars of society refuted, and they confused Socrates’ goals with those of his cynical imitators. Eventually they brought Socrates to court on vague charges of undermining traditional religion and morality.

In the end, Socrates’ mission requires no special command from Apollo, and he knows that its universal value can be understood without the oracle (which he suggests just before the jury sentences him to death). In addition to the intrinsic value of Socratic ‘human wisdom’ as the opposite of arrogance, it also has a fundamental instrumental value in education. Those who think they already know something will of course not try to learn it. So when Socrates shows someone that they don’t really know what they thought they knew, he is providing a necessary condition for them to learn it. Recognizing the problem is the first step to forming a solution. In a dialogue about geometry and virtue called Meno, Socrates says: “Do you recognize, Meno, where [your slave] is now? ... At first he didn’t know what was the base of the eight-foot square, and now he still doesn’t know. But then he thought he knew, and answered with confidence as if he knew, and didn’t think himself lacking. ... In fact, we have done something useful for discovering the answer, for now, being aware that he doesn’t know, he would be glad to inquire.” Throughout Plato’s Socratic dialogues, Socrates seeks to make genuine education possible by helping people to recognize what has yet to be learned. Though Socrates can be sarcastic, especially with openly arrogant adults, he can also be gentle and encouraging, especially with modest youths (compare his different approaches to different characters within Meno or Lysis or Charmides.) If Socrates is right, then when people get upset with him for refuting them, and consider him arrogant for doing so, they are really testifying to their own arrogance.

What’s a modern admirer of Socrates to do?

Philosophers are still sometimes considered argumentative tricksters who don’t respect truth or tradition. (Sometimes it’s true.) The ethical and educational values of avoiding arrogance and recognizing ignorance are as great as ever. And Socratic questioning the way Socrates does it – as a common search for knowledge about controversial topics, with rigorous logical standards, conducted by people without final answers – is as difficult as ever. I teach philosophy at an American university, and sometimes I try (among other approaches) to conduct discussions roughly the way Socrates did. I try to manage it without seeming or being arrogant; but I’ll bet that I sometimes fail.

A revealing study by David Dunning and Justin Kruger at Cornell University finds that those who are most ignorant of logic, English grammar, or how to tell a good joke, also fail to recognize their ignorance. The worst performers on tests of these skills typically considered themselves above average, and overestimated their abilities far more than others did. After the poorest performers in grammar ‘graded’ the tests of those who performed much better, they still thought themselves much more knowledgeable than they were, and even tended to raise their estimation of their own abilities compared with their more knowledgeable peers. By contrast, the most competent were more likely to underestimate their skills relative to others, until they witnessed the others’ performance. As the authors of the study point out, these new data add colorful experimental support for Darwin’s observation that “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge” and Jefferson’s dictum that “he who knows best knows how little he knows.” Let us not forget Socrates’ ancient insight that such poor achievers have no reason to try to learn until they are convinced of their ignorance.

The practice called ‘Socratic Method’ in American law schools has become notorious because of a tendency (perhaps only among poor practitioners) to humiliate students by demanding that they publicly answer questions about legal reasoning until they fail. There are clear benefits to a system of instruction that requires students to be actively engaged, always prepared to use their own investigations and logical resources to understand difficult issues in their trade. But the method in law schools can easily become a game of ‘guess what I’m thinking.’ And of course humiliation does not typically promote a humble determination to keep improving one’s understanding (even Socrates’ partners often become more angry than curious). At any rate, questioning in which the teacher already has the answers, and keeps them to himself as a pedagogical tool, is not Socrates’ brand of Socratic questioning.

Nor does Socrates use another modern strategy that’s called ‘Socratic.’ With children and adolescents, and sometimes at universities, open-ended questioning is designed to promote free expression, self-esteem, and toleration of diverse opinions. This approach can be well suited for introducing controversies, and for encouraging open discussion, but not for logically rigorous dialogue. By itself, it can support a healthy tolerance, or a casual indifference, and it can be difficult to square with our general commitment that some things really are morally wrong, and that society requires a measure of basic agreement about morality in order to thrive. But more to the present point, it is not Socrates’ approach. When we see a rare case of Socrates conversing with children (in Plato’s Lysis), he is gentle and encouraging, but he still takes pains to refute mistaken notions and draws the boys’ attention to the fact that they don’t know as much as they thought they knew.

The Socratic Method of Socrates is not for all occasions. But in fields where people often think they already know the answers – morality and religion not the least among them – a teacher must often use rigorous standards to help students, gently but firmly, to recognize the extent of our ignorance. We’re not completely ignorant, of course. In courses on ethical theories, I like to emphasize that most of us are roughly correct most of the time about what sorts of things are morally good or bad, and that ethical theories don’t just tell us what to do. Ethical theories define essential terms and ultimate goals so we can explain why things are good or bad, and thereby better decide hard cases where good traditions conflict or new problems leave us puzzled. When final and precise answers are not to be found, examining the consistency, definitions, and explanatory power of our most well-informed beliefs are all we have to work with. These are the same standards employed by Socrates. And we need them if we are to maintain that, as difficult as some moral questions may be for teacher and student alike, not all answers are equally good.

But our ignorance can prevent us from recognizing our ignorance. And I’m not just trying to be paradoxical. When we correct others, and even take time to confront and refute them, we can follow Socrates’ lead and reveal our own ignorance as well, in the hope that we are genuinely siding with humility against arrogance.

© Dr Glenn Rawson 2005

Glenn Rawson received his PhD at the University of Texas at Austin. He teaches philosophy at the University of Rhode Island.

Further Reading
Plato’s most ‘Socratic’ dialogues include his Apology, Charmides, Crito, Euthyphro, Gorgias, Ion, and Laches. A stimulating introduction to the philosophy of Socrates, informed by the best scholarship and eminently readable, is P. Woodruff’s ‘Socratic Education’ in A. Rorty’s Philosophers on Education (Routledge 1998). A thorough interpretation of Socrates’ defense speech is C.D.C. Reeve’s Socrates in the Apology (Hackett 1989). A short overview of Socrates’ life, philosophy and historical influence is C.C.W. Taylor’s Socrates (Oxford 1998). A fuller overview of the philosophy is T. Brickhouse and N. Smith’s The Philosophy of Socrates. For yet more detail, see the four topically organized volumes of scholarship edited by W.J. Prior, Socrates: Critical Assessments (Routledge 1996). The study by Dunning and Kruger is published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, December 1999. Versions of the ‘Socratic Method’ in law schools are indicted at http://webapp.utexas.edu/blogs/archives/bleiter/000294.html, and defended at http://www.law.uchicago.edu/socrates/soc_article.html.

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